Category Archives: Do the Work
I am reading about structure. All stories have that, they say. All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
There should be three acts. I have learned that, from books about heroes and journeys and protagonists and antagonists.
And there should be conflict. All good stories are driven by conflict. The conflict centers around a dilemma. A dilemma is a problem that cannot be solved. It can only be resolved, or altered, or modified, by a change of perception.
There are no answers. There is only exploration, of the story that I have within me, and which by exploration can be let loose, and come alive on the page.
The blank page. Right there in front of me.
And there should be beats, and scenes, each with mandatory steps – inciting incident, complication, crisis question, climactic decision, and resolution.
It turns out that these steps apply on different levels. This sounds rather cool, I would say. They apply, in micro-scale on individual beats, and on a somewhat larger scale on scenes. And they also apply on acts, and for the whole – for the global story. Almost like a fractal.
I am trying to make sense of the above things. I have this goal of putting together a new book. And then one more. And then perhaps a series.
Why, one may ask?
I cannot answer that one clearly enough. Perhaps it is a test. To see if it can be done. Before it is too late.
These are my current, favourite references in this endeavour:
- The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. I purchased this book in 2011, and I used it a bit in my previous project. This time I intend to follow it, and to go through the ninety day scheme that is presented in the book. I think it is a good way to make sense of the structure questions, while still holding it loosely enough so that it does not feel artificial and constructed.
- The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. Here I learn about the structure, and the steps mentioned above, and a lot more. There is also a running example, where the author applies the Story Grid to The Silence of the Lambs. The book is very well written, and very instructive.
- From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler. This book is the opposite of structure. It may help you to make a story come alive, and to make the reader feel something, and not just be informed. I have written about this book also in another post.
You follow the rainbow, and you look for the pot of gold
In some sense, and if I think about it for a while I tend to agree (at least in principle), it is the act (of writing, or painting, etc) in itself that matters.
And if you stop, and let the Resistance rule, it does not get better. Not at all. Each day it becomes more difficult to start again. And if you wait long enough, it may be really, really, difficult to start again.
So today I will start my Scrivener again. We’ll see what the outcome will be.
For 1107 days, producing an average of 145 words per day, it looks like this if you make a graph.
The graph shows one bar for each work shift, placed at the date when the work shift took place. The length of each bar corresponds to the total number of words in the book, at that date.
We see from the graph that there are periods of productivity, and periods where the pace is slower.
Referring to the labels in the graph, here are some milestones
- A – March 2012. This was the start, however not from zero. My input data was 57875 words produced during NaNoWrimo 2011.
- B – Summer 2012. Vacation time from day job, and deciding to do some work. This blog was rather new, and I wrote about giving it a try, and about the theme of the book.
- C – Summer 2013. The next summer, and I am not done. Time to speed up. I read From where you Dream by Robert Olen Butler, and it was a game-changer. I wrote this post about Hypnopompia, and I became a little bit more convinced that I would make it to the end. We see that the productivity goes up (more words per day, and less days between each work shift). Looking forward, we see that this will happen also the next summer.
- D – January 2014. Added this is a work of fiction, and a publishing note referring to the year 2014 (it was later changed to 2015). Started using Scrivener for the writing (before this date, I used Emacs with org mode).
- E – February 2015. Decided to use Bookbaby (I purchased e-book production and Cover design), and aiming for the release. Starting the final edit, together with my first reader (who, like for Jan Guillou, happens to be my wife). Here I used docx-format for the book, since that was the format to be used for the submission, and Kindle Notes for the editing markings. We saved some rainforest and did it using phones, tablets, and computers. In total, there were over three thousand markings – small but significant changes! (In retrospect, this final editing was very well worth the effort).
Here are some conclusions
- Every day without writing pushes your release date forward. Your book has a certain amount of words – even if you beforehand do not know how many – and every day you don’t write, the release day is postponed by one day. See this picture, which shows the number of words per day, and this picture, which shows the number of days without writing between working shifts – and you will see the effect more clearly.
- Sometimes it helps to think that you are closer to the end than what you really are (a post published January 2013).
- Books about writing can help – they did, surely, for me. But beware – count the number of blogs about blogging and the number of writers writing about writing, and select carefully which ones you want to spend time on.
- Copyediting is painful but productive.
- Selling and marketing needs their fair share of work. For me Joanna Penn has been a great source of inspiration. And of course, also here you need to Do the Work.
So, even if writing it was hard (well, at least it took time, but it was a lot of fun), I hope that reading it would be less cumbersome.
They say it is like driving in the dark …
… writing, that is – you see only a small part of the world, and sometimes it is very hard to know how to find your way home.
But now I have given myself a deadline!
I must admit that I have been strongly influenced by a) my wife, and b) a new job, which starts beginning of February 2015.
But nevertheless, I can sense a small feeling of (premature) celebration.
It has been a long journey. It started with NaNoWriMo in 2011 (yes, 2011!), and it has involved publication of excerpts here on this blog. And of course, many hours with my computer.
The excerpts are now removed, since it was impossible to keep them up to date. The manuscript changes all the time, and when it is finished (yes, it will be), I might reconsider the idea of publishing snippets from the book also here.
I plan to use Bookbaby, and when it is done (the publication, that is), I will give myself some rewards.
I will read this expensive book, leaned back in a comfortable chair.
I might join the Story is a State of Mind course, by Sarah Selecky.
I will read more in these excellent writing books (yes, it is always more fun to read about it than doing it – Resistance, right!):
- How Fiction Works, by James Wood – because of its language, and because of its use of that language to describe what people have written in books!
- The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner – because it is interesting in an elitistic way
- Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose – because it got me started
And I will return to my other book-project – Books with Views.
And I will post here more often – I promise.
It’s like a long, and sometimes also winding, road, that gets narrower, and narrower, and narrower …
It can also be seen from the word count. I started it with a bang, in NaNoWriMo 2011, going from 40000 to 50000 words during the last 3 days of that rainy and cold Nordic November month.
Then it was time for a well-deserved Christmas break.
A new year started, and I was determined to finish my work. My plan was to continue adding text to the draft, and then do a revision and rewrite of the whole thing. As it turned out, I later decided to publish rewritten scenes, one by one, on this blog.
Although the idea of NaNoWriMo was to create a complete first draft, there were a lot of holes to fill. I have continued to add words (and also rewrite) during 2012, and as we now start a new year I expect I will add another 10000 words before I am done.
Here you can see the word count for 2012.
From the graph above you can see that there is a steady increase in word count, but it tends to slow down as we approach the end of the year.
I have this feeling that it gets slower and slower. So what can be done about this? Why is it so hard to finish?
Being partly an academic person, I should of course look for an answer in the available literature.
The first time I read about fear was in Linchpin. I learned that we tend to listen to our primitive feelings of fear, designed to protect us from dangerous animals wanting to eat us alive. And that we use these feelings as excuses for not finishing our work. In the materially safe world of today (at least when comparing with the pre-historian Flintstone-inspiring world) it is of course not so smart to listen to these primitive feelings.
Instead we should sit down and Do The Work.
We could also listen to what other, more famous, persons have to say. As an example, I can recommend the article How to Break Through Your Creative Block: Strategies from 90 of Today’s Most Exciting Creators from the always excellent Brainpickings site.
Often, in advice for getting the writing done, there is a time aspect. Like if you set aside a certain amount of time, and dedicate this time to writing, then things will happen. This is practiced in a technique called the Pomodoro technique, which I became aware of during a visit to my work from a book company representative. I received a free copy of a book about the Pomodoro technique, where it was said that I should purchase a timer, and set it to 25 minutes. All work should then be done in 25 minutes intervals!
John Cleese also says that you should set aside a certain amount of time, when you desire to be creative.
Based on these advice, I have tried the time technique. I set aside two hours for non-fiction writing and one hour for fiction writing. And those days when I had the discipline to follow it, it surely worked. Words got written down, software was developed, and the idea of thinking in quantity rather than quality really helped (to get things done).
Perhaps it is possible to follow this example, from the always interesting Copyblogger site, where it is described how a person became very productive by setting aside a certain amount of time every day: How to Kill Writer’s Block and Become a Master Copywriter in Only 3 Hours a Day.
Do you, dear reader, have similar experiences as the ones described above?
Do we have to make a choice?
Do we have to choose between art and science?
Is it so that science covers what we do for a living, which in turn make our companies earn money, which generate taxes and welfare and growth, and then we use art for our recreation?
I did not think so much about these things before. I started out in the art department you could say. I wrote my first (and still my only) two novels when I was ten. I typed them in, on my father’s typewriter, and I also made photocopies, typing them once more, using blue carbon papers in between, so as to make fresh copies, obviously to be sold with great success!
One of the books was a mystery novel. It featured two boys, I think they were cousins. They discovered a hidden treasure, tucked away in the woods outside their grandparents house, and following the strange note they found on a piece of paper, placed suspiciously just beside the treasure coffin, they were led to an abandonded house, even deeper into the woods. After some twists and turns, they discovered and cracked the criminal gang, conveniently labelled X03, a league whose members then all became prisoners for a long time to come.
The other book was called Knight John, and here there was an even clearer line of inspiration. I was a great fan of Ivanhoe, I had read the book several times, and I had also found some interesting connections between Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, hinted to me in some black-and-white film, but not clearly enough explained to me by my parents. So there was place for more investigations into this unsolved problem. Did they know each other, these two heroes? And wasn’t it so that Robin Hood was perhaps also a real person? In contrast to Ivanhoe, who was invented by Sir Walter Scott.
These were interesting things, but at the time I did not pursue my writing career any further.
Now, some years later, I will make a retry. As I said in a previous post, I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. So the challenge then was of course to choose a topic, to write about, and of course also to find out how it is actually done, this task of writing a novel. Being an educated person I soon started to look for instructions, manuals, and HOWTO-guides (such things were not needed in 1971 right?).
I found some good books, which were really helpful. I will say more about them later but since there is no reason to being secretive I give you their titles here, and some comments. So these were the first books I found to be very helpful for the task of writing a novel.
- Do the Work by Steven Pressfield – purchased April 26, 2011. I mentioned this one in the previous post also, and although it is not a handbook in novel-writing of any sorts, it is a fantastic source of inspiration for the actual act of doing the writing. It is very interesting to take part in the stories told, and I especially remember some low points of having a film manuscript finally turned into a movie, and no one is showing up at the cinema, and how this is used to fuel the spirit to actually continue, in spite of this anti-success. I also remember the phrase “Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five”, as an illustration that Resistance never gives up. And I learned that Steven King works every day, including Fourth of July, his birthday, and Christmas.
- The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the story within – Watt, Alan – purchased September 30, 2011. I found this book interesting since it did not directly focus on structure and outlining. Instead Alan Watt recommended us to imagine the world where the story, not yet known to us, would take place. This was very helpful, and there are many good exercises in the book that you can do, where often stream-of-consciousness writing is used (just let it flow, do not at all make it anyway close to perfect and stylish), for the purpose of getting to know your characters, both the good guys and the bad guys, better. An interesting example is “As your hero, write for five minutes 1) the bravest thing I’ve ever done, and 2) the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done”.
- Reading Like a Writer (P.S.) – Francine Prose – October 25, 2011. If I must pick a favorite, this one wins! Francine Prose does not give instructions on how to write. Instead she shows, by example, how other writers write, and have written, by quoting from their books and commenting on their writing. I will tell you more about my impressions in a later post, but personally I highly recommend this book. It made me see books with a quite different eye, and helping a lot when trying to write. And it gave good pointers to authors I had never read before, such as current favorites like Edward St Aubyn, Alice Munro, and Scott Spencer (I finished A Ship Made of Paper with almost no breaks – I am a notorious book-zapper so this is a good credit for me)
Professionally, I am now in the science department. Well, to be more specific, you might call it the Engineering Science Department. My job is to be an Associate Professor in a system oriented topic (think computers, software, control systems, mobile phone technology) at a university in Sweden. Now that might sound fancy, but I can say at least that it is a lot of fun, and at times also a bit strange, especially when I compare to earlier jobs in industry, where I was an engineer working with software and system simulation, and many more managers and time plans than you will ever see in a university.
I wanted to relate to this when I chose a topic for my novel. Being a little bit tired of all the talk on TV and in newspapers about how we must be a competitive nation, and all the worries that our kids are so bad in mathematics, I found, and liked, this article, properly named Dehumanized. I thought that this divide, between the rationalistic thinking of those obeying only the physical laws and their mathematical incarnations, and those who are perhaps a little bit more interested in the why-side of all things, looking for not only useful and economical things in their chase and search to find meaningful stuff.
So this was my mindset as I enterned the NaNoWriMo challenge, to come up with a story, rather thriller-like if I could make it, after all I wanted people to read at least a little bit more than the first pages, and in the mean-time throw in some bad guys representing the firm believe in the rational stuff, and some good guys doing their best to prevent large-scale bad things to happen.
And most of all, the large-scale bad things would be engineered and directed towards the weak, so that we once and for all could arrive at a more effective and rational society, where the fluffy bloggers and wannabe-artists do not occupy the complete media space, showing off their new things in more and more real-life soap operas and almost monopolizing the social mediasphere.
Now wouldn’t that be a nice place to live – in the art-free world?
Perhaps it was due to inspiration from my wife, perhaps it was myself remembering my early attempts as a ten-year-old author wannabe, or perhaps it was procrastination towards writing academic papers.
In any case, I decided to give it a try. Fiction writing, that is. It was August 26, 2011, and I had seen the NaNoWriMo writing challenge on the web. It seemed very interesting, this NaNoWriMo stuff. You committed to write 50000 words in one month, and if you succeeded you could call yourself a winner.
I signed up, using the nickname dr_dynamic, and I was ready to go.
But where to start? How on earth could one write a novel? And in one month? This certainly seemed like a daunting task.
I decided I needed to practice. At the time had an account at 750 words, a very nice site where you make a promise to try to write 750 words of text each day. The site keeps track of your words count, and awards in the form of nice digital badges are given to you as you make progress. The more days in a row that you write your 750 words, the higher ranks you get.
So I used 750 words as a diary, and while writing my 750 words a day, I tried to sneak in some text snippets meant to be seen as “fiction”. I thought of these as possible building blocks, later on, in a novel of some kind.
Being an aspiring Kindle addict (reading books mostly on my phone – I do not own a real Kindle hardware yet) I had also purchased and downloaded some books, where I hoped I would find some hints. At this stage I had acquired a Kindle publishing guide, and also a a book on how ideas spread.
I was most inspired, however, by Steven Pressfield’s great little book Do the Work, a book which I read through directly, without zapping away to any of my other books.